Nicole Lafond

Nicole Lafond is a news writer for TPM based in New York City. She is also currently earning a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and previously worked as an education reporter at The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_Lafond.

Articles by Nichole

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services for contracting with agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples when placing children in homes.

The state department works with several different child placement agencies that often are affiliated with religious organizations and have rejected same-sex couples looking to adopt or become foster parents because of religious objections, according to an ACLU statement.

The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of two same-sex couples — Kristy and Dana Dumont and Erin and Rebecca Busk-Sutton — who have attempted to adopt children in Michigan and were rejected because of their same-sex marriages.

The practice violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, as well as the Equal Protection Clause, the ACLU alleges.

Michigan can’t afford to have families like the Dumonts and the Busk-Suttons turned away based on criteria that have nothing to do with their ability to care for a child,” ACLU said in a statement. “Allowing state-contracted agencies to screen out prospective families based on religious criteria not only harms the children most in need, it is also unconstitutional.” 

Michigan is not the only state that pays private agencies that end up rejecting couples based on religious objections. ACLU said it’s not just same-sex couples who are at risk either.

“It’s not just same-sex couples that are at risk. Most of these laws also would allow an agency to reject families that don’t share its faith, single-parent families, or any other kind of family that doesn’t meet its religious criteria,” the statement said. “We are hopeful that we will get a ruling in this case that will send a message to state legislatures that the Constitution does not permit these kinds of laws.”

Read the lawsuit below:

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Following “troubling” reports from Politico about Health and Human Service (HHS) Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets for official travel, five Democratic congressional leaders are requesting a thorough review of Price’s travel practices, citing concerns that the trips have cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars.

In a letter to HHS’ inspector general Wednesday, the Democrats — spearheaded by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) — outlined the information Politico reported Tuesday, claiming Price’s use of private jets for five official business trips up and down the East Coast last week have cost an estimated $60,000.

The group is demanding to know who is paying for Price’s charter travel and how much it is costing tax payers.

They said federal regulations allow the use of government or charter aircraft when it is the “most cost-effective mode of travel,” but that separate HHS policy requires all travel be by the “most expeditious” means possible and should “commensurate with the nature and purpose of the duties involved.”

A spokesperson for the department released a statement Wednesday saying they try to find commercial travel options for Price as often as possible, but claimed his schedule is very hectic and it’s not always “feasible.”

They also said Price is “currently managing” recovery and preparation efforts for “three major hurricanes” to apparently illustrate his busy schedule or need for charter travel, but the trips Price made last week were meetings with health organizations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

“Given these requirements, it is unclear why Secretary Price would require such costly travel in these instances when more economical options were reportedly available,” the letter said, referencing the portion of the Politico report that outline all the commercial options available during the days and times of Price’s travel last week.

Pallone and the other Democrats who signed the letter — Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) — said the reports are “particularly troubling” because of Price’s “repeated statements regarding his intentions to reduce the waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Read the full letter below:

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Following a report from Politico that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price uses private jets to travel for official business, the department insisted that it tries to find commercial travel options for the secretary.

But that is “not always feasible” with Price’s “incredibly demanding schedule,” a department spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday. 

The department said Price often works 13-plus hours a day and on top of that still tries to travel outside of Washington to meet with the “American people.”

On Tuesday evening, Politico reported that Price used a private jet to travel to conduct official business up and down the East Coast five times last week.

The department said on top of everything else on Price’s plate, he is also “currently managing” recovery and preparation efforts for “three major hurricanes,” but the trips Price made last week were meetings with health organizations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

While it’s not illegal to use a private jet, the move is unprecedented for a HHS secretary and is ethically considered a dubious practice. In an apparent response to Politico’s story, a ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), announced on Wednesday he would ask the department to see a “full accounting” of Price’s travel.

Read the full statement from the department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Charmaine Yoest:

“Within an incredibly demanding schedule full of 13+ hour days, every effort is being made to maximize Secretary Price’s ability to travel outside Washington to meet with the American people and carry out HHS’s missions. Secretary Price is currently managing public health and human services recovery and preparation efforts for 3 major hurricanes.

Secretary Price leads a $1.2 trillion agency – the largest agency in government. The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible. The President has made it clear his Administration will move power out of Washington and return it to the American people. Secretary Price will continue meeting with the American people outside of the Beltway to hear their concerns and ensure HHS makes decisions that best provide for their needs.”

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The Robert E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia — which the Confederate general attended — has voted to change its name, a move prompted by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last month and the massacre at a Charleston church in 2015.

After two years of debate among parishioners, the church’s governing body voted Sunday to change the name to Grace Episcopal Church, its original name before the congregation chose to change it in 1903, 33 years after Lee’s death, the Episcopal News Service reported. 

It was a narrow victory Sunday — the vestry voted 7-5 — for members of the congregation who have been requesting a name change since a white supremacist killed nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston two years ago. 

The decision was backed by Bishop Mark Bourlakas of the Southwestern Virginia Diocese who said the debate has been a “costly process both spiritually, financially and emotionally” for the church.

The church was near and dear to Lee’s heart in the years following the Civil War, according to the Episcopal News Service. Lee lived in Lexington while serving as president of Washington College, which was renamed Washington and Lee College after Lee’s death in 1870. During those last five years of his life, Lee reportedly was invested in helping the “struggling congregation survive,” the news service said.

The parish has no record of why the name was changed 33 years after Lee’s death.

The change at the parish, where Lee served as a senior warden, follows moves by municipalities, state and federal governing bodies across the U.S. to remove Confederate statues from their communities.

The violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last month intensified the debate over what place Confederate memorials have in society. At the rally, a group of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Lee. The rally turned violent and ended in a man affiliated with white supremacists allegedly driving his car through a crowd of counter-protesters and killing one person.

Other houses of worship across the U.S. have removed Confederate memorabilia from their buildings in the wake of Charlottesville, Episcopalian News Service reported.

The Washington National Cathedral in D.C. removed a stained glass windows (pictured) that displayed images of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and the Christ Church Cathedral in Ohio is studying what to do with Confederate figures in the building after leaders asked for their removal.   

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While it’s been reported that CNN and Fox News won’t hire former White House press secretary Sean Spicer as a paid contributor, NBC News confirmed Tuesday that the other three of the big five — ABC, NBC and CBS — won’t be offering Spicer a contract either.

And it’s all because of a “lack of credibility,” several network insiders told NBC.

Since he left the White House, Spicer has been seeking a contributor position at one of the networks, but executives “won’t touch him,” an executive familiar with the conversations told NBC.

Some have considered bringing Spicer on the air for “round tables,” but a contract “is not happening,” the executive said.

A person familiar with Spicer’s conversations with the news outlets said that conversations were still ongoing and claimed that Spicer may not even want a contract so he has the freedom to work with several networks.

Since leaving the White House at the end of August, Spicer has been controversially named a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and is working with Worldwide Speakers Group to find paid speaking gigs.

Spicer made an appearance at the Emmys on Sunday, apparently mocking himself for his own White House podium rant about the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Spicer told The New York Times that he “absolutely” regrets the way he treated reporters when they asked about the crowd size in January.

The former press secretary resigned in July after Trump hired quickly-ousted Anthony Scaramucci as the White House communications director.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price spent tens of thousands of dollars to take a private jet to travel up and down the East Coast last week, Politico reported.

The move isn’t illegal, but breaks with the precedent of his predecessors who took commercial flights for official business travel.

A department spokesperson declined to share details of the flights with Politico or say who paid for the trips, but said Price occasionally uses a charter aircraft for official travel when commercial flights aren’t feasible.

None of the organizations that Price met with in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania paid for his travel, Politico confirmed.

Several current and former Health and Human Services staffers told Politico that Price has been using private jets for domestic travel for months.

While not illegal, the practice is considered suspicious and is characterized as an irresponsible use of taxpayer funds, Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics told Politico. 

In apparent reaction to Politico’s reports, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) announced Wednesday he’s planning to ask the department’s Inspector General to look into Price’s use of private planes for government business, according to a statement.

The ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce committee said he wants to see a “full accounting” of Price’s travel.

Read the full report — which outlines all the feasible methods of commercial travel at the dates and times of Price’s trips — here.

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In an interview earlier this week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she wouldn’t “rule out” challenging the legitimacy of the 2016 election, but clarified Tuesday she has no plans to “contest” the election, regardless of the outcome of the investigation into Russian meddling in the election.

“Nobody is talking about contesting the election, including me. No,” she said appearing on the “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert. “Because there is no mechanism. But I think legitimacy is rooted in what comes out of these investigations because if there is evidence of communication, coordination, whatever it might be, then I think millions of Americans would say, ‘Well, those raise questions about legitimacy.”

She said besides voting in the next election, there’s not much else she or anyone else could do besides ask questions about President Donald Trump’s legitimacy as an elected leader.

“What you do is mobilize politically to express your will and a rejection of that kind of Russian involvement in and coordination, at the ballot box,” she said. “That is where we settle our political difference and that’s where it should be.”

She said the latest revelations about Facebook’s targeted advertisement sales and potential Russian involvement in that process has been enough to push her to “sound the alarm.”

“We’re going to find out a lot more, Stephen, and I am saying as clearly as I can, I feel I’m a bit of a Paul Revere, I’m trying to sound the alarm,” she said. “You have to understand what Putin’s strategy is. He really doesn’t like democracy, he thinks it’s an inconvenient messy process and he doesn’t like us and he wants destabilize our country.”

She also touched on Trump’s first speech at the United Nations General Assembly Monday, calling his words “dark” and “dangerous.”

That’s “not the kind of message that the leader of the greatest nation in the world should be delivering,” she said.

Watch the full interview below:

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A Republican state legislator in South Dakota apologized Tuesday after sharing a meme on Facebook that appeared to encourage people to hit protestors with vehicles.

Under the headline “All Lives Splatter,” the cartoon showed a car apparently hitting people in the street and said “nobody cares about your protest” and “keep your ass out of the road.”

Her caption above the image said “I think this is a movement we can all support,” according to local newspaper, the Argus Leader.

After local progressive groups shared the image and asked for an apology from the lawmaker, Rep. Lynne DiSanto deleted the post and said she “perceived it as encouraging people to stay out of the street.”

“I am sorry if people took offense to it and perceived my message in any way insinuating support or condoning people being hit by cars,” DiSanto said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “I perceived it differently.”

Not long after the post was deleted, the real estate firm where she works posted on Facebook that DiSanto was no longer associated with the company, “due to recent events,” Rapid City Journal reported.

The post comes at a time of heightened concern about violence at protests. 

About a month ago a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia ended in the death of a woman named Heather Heyer, who was killed when a man affiliated with the white supremacists allegedly drove his car through a crowd of counter protesters.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had plenty of words of encouragement Tuesday for his Republican colleagues’ recent efforts to rally the votes for an Obamacare repeal and replace bill, but stopped short of full-on endorsing the legislation.

Speaking from the Senate floor, McConnell criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) recent roll-out of a single-payer health care bill, calling it a “massive expansion of a failed idea” and saying the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson legislation will provide a better alternative.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) “rolled out a health-care proposal of their own last week,” he said. “It would repeal the pillars of Obamacare and replace that failed law’s failed approach with a new one: allowing states and governors to actually implement better health-care ideas by taking more decision-making power out of Washington.”

He said the notion that governors and state legislators would have the chance to make health care decisions for their own constituents is “an intriguing idea” that has a “great deal of support.”

But after the late-night surprise defeat of Senate Republicans’ last “skinny repeal” plan in July, McConnell appears to be unwilling to throw his full weight behind the new bill until he knows he has the votes. So instead he offered warm words of encouragement as the whipping for votes continues. 

“As we continue to discuss that legislation, I’d like to thank Senator Graham and Senator Cassidy for all of their hard work. They know how important it is to move beyond the failures of Obamacare. They know that our opportunity to do so may well pass us by if we don’t act soon.”

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Speaking from the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) blasted his Republican colleagues’ latest effort to rush an Obamacare repeal and replace bill through the Senate, especially before the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has a chance to make projections on the cost of the bill and the numbers of people who would lose insurance coverage.

To consider a bill like this without a full CBO score is worse than negligent, it’s grossly irresponsible,” he said. “We were told yesterday that the CBO may be able to provide a baseline estimate of the cost of the bill, but not the coverage numbers or a detailed analysis of how the bill would affect Americans’ health care choices.”

Schumer outlined his party’s concerns with the new Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson legislation, which would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act and convert Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies to block grants controlled by individual states.

He said the plan will cost “millions” their coverage and will “radically restructure” Medicaid, the program that aids the poor, elderly and disabled.

He’s concerned it will allow insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing medical conditions, throw the individual market into “chaos” and would eliminate consumer protections that give Americans access to things like affordable maternity care, he said.

By Senate rule, Republicans have until the end of September to pass Obamacare repeal with only 50 votes.

Read his full speech from the Senate floor below:

There is a possibility that by the end of next week, the Senate will have a vote, again, on a Republican healthcare bill that was assembled in the dark of night, by one party, without a full account of what that bill would do. It would be shameful, shameful return to the same process that the Majority used to try to ram a bill through in July, unsuccessfully.

To consider a bill like this without a full CBO score is worse than negligent, it’s grossly irresponsible. We were told yesterday that the CBO may be able to provide a baseline estimate of the cost of the bill, but not the coverage numbers or a detailed analysis of how the bill would affect Americans’ health care choices.

Now Mr. President, we are talking about 1/6 of the economy; we are talking about the health care of the nation, we’re talking about the lives, day in and day out, of millions of Americans who need health care, and we’re not going to know what the legislation really does? Senators will be voting blind? You know they say justice is blind, but the Senators on the other side of the aisle should be walking around here with a blindfold over their eyes, because they don’t know what they’re voting on.  Maybe they don’t care. I don’t know how any Senator could go home to their constituents and explain why they voted for a major bill with major consequences to so many of their people without having specific answers about how it would impact their state.

What we do know is that this new Trumpcare bill, the Graham-Cassidy legislation, is worse in many ways than the previous versions of Trumpcare.

The new Trumpcare would devastate our healthcare system in five specific ways:

First, it would cause millions to lose coverage. Second, it would radically restructure and deeply cut Medicaid, ending the program as we know it. The dream of the hard right—get rid of Medicaid—could happen, even though that’s a program that affects the poor and so many in the middle class.  Nursing homes, opioid treatment, people who have kids who have serious illnesses.

Third, it brings us back to the days when insurance companies could discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.  The ban on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions would be gone. We had a lot of promises from the other side.  ‘They’d never vote for a bill that didn’t protect people with pre-existing conditions.’  That seems to be going by the wayside, in a headlong rush to pass a bill so you could claim a political victory.  And what about that mom, or dad, who finds out his son, or her son/daughter, has cancer? The insurance company says ‘Yeah, we’ll cover you. It’ll cost you $50,000.’ They don’t have it, and they have to watch their child suffer.  This was an advance that almost all Americans supported. It’s an advance that most people on the other side of the aisle claimed to believe in. Gone.

Fourth, the bill gets rid of the consumer protections that guarantee Americans access to affordable maternity care, substance abuse treatment, prescription drugs.  All of those could be out of any plan. Pay a lot for a plan and not get much for it under this bill.

And fifth, it would throw the individual market into chaos immediately, increasing out-of-pocket costs for individual market consumers and resulting in 15 million people losing coverage next year.

On the first point –Trumpcare would cause millions to lose health insurance in two ways: first by undoing the Affordable Care Act’s major coverage expansion under Medicaid and premium and cost-sharing assistance, instead putting that into an inadequate and temporary block grant, and second, by radically restructuring and cutting the traditional Medicaid program through a per-capita cap.

We don’t have a CBO score yet, and may not get one in time, but previous CBO scores of similar schemes have shown that more that 30 million Americans could lose coverage under this bill. 30 million Americans, 10 percent, approximately, of our population.

On the second point – the new Trumpcare would end Medicaid as we know it by converting Medicaid’s current federal-state financial partnership to a per-capita cap, which cuts current Medicaid funding on an annual basis.

This is a direct blow to nursing home patients, folks in opioid treatments. And CBO has said that 15 million fewer people would receive Medicaid in similar proposals.

On the third point – the new Trumpcare actually brings back the ability for insurers to discriminate against folks with pre-existing conditions, as I mentioned.

Fourth – the new Trumpcare would no longer guarantee consumers affordable access to maternity care, substance abuse, and prescription.

And fifth – like the previous repeal and replace bills, it would immediately eliminate the individual mandate, which would raise the number of uninsured by 15 million relative to current law in 2018 and increase individual market premiums by 20 percent.

So, if you vote for this bill, right away, 15 million lose coverage, premiums go up by 20 percent.  People who vote for this bill are not going to be happy with its results.

Mr. President, each one of these five things represents a major step backwards for our healthcare system. Bringing back discrimination against folks with pre-existing conditions? Ending Medicaid as we know it? These are overwhelmingly popular with Democrats, Independents, Republicans. The hard right doesn’t like it. The big financiers of the other party.

We’re going to go backward, backward.  We’re going to go backward and not even know exactly the effects.  I think the other side, why are they rushing this through? They’re ashamed of it.  They need to have that political scalp, ‘See? We abolished Obamacare!’ But what they’re putting in its place, even for those who don’t like Obamacare, is worse. They don’t want to know that. And the joy that they will have, misplaced joy in my opinion, of abolishing Obamacare will evaporate quite soon when their constituents feel the effects of this bill, and they hear about it from people, average folks, who are so hurt.

The Washington Post summed up Graham-Cassidy yesterday. They said the bill “[Graham-Cassidy] would slash health-care spending more deeply and would probably cover fewer people than the July bill — which failed because of concerns over those details.”

Republicans could not garner 50 votes for their various healthcare plans earlier this year because of how much damage those plans did to Medicaid; how they rolled back protections for pre-existing conditions. And some opposed because the process was such a sham. Well Mr. President, all three of those conditions are here again with this bill. Cuts to Medicaid. No guarantee of protections for pre-existing conditions. Sham of a process.

Now there is a better approach. Right now, Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray are working in a bipartisan way – holding hearings, working through the committee, coming back and forth between the parties with discussions—each side’s going to have to give, that’s how it works around here, or should work—and trying to get a proposal that will improve things. That’s the kind of legislating many members of the Senate have said they want to get back to. That’s the kind of process worthy of the world’s greatest deliberative body.

But after a rancorous, divisive health care debate that took up the better part of this year, Democrats and Republicans were working, have been working, in good faith to come to a bipartisan agreement on healthcare in the HELP Committee. The Republican Majority will toss all of that progress away if they pursue Graham-Cassidy next week the way they’re pursuing it: returning to reconciliation, not working through the committees, no full CBO report, making a mockery of regular order.

Mr. President, I hope — for their sake and for the country’s — that my Republican friends turn back from this new Trumpcare, and join us again on the road of bipartisanship. We’ve seen bipartisan sprouts bloom in the last month.  Graham-Cassidy would snuff them out.  Nobody wants that, nobody.

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